Just in time for the holiday season of 2005, Nintendo released the fifth Mario Kart game, Mario Kart DS for the Nintendo DS handheld console. As the second portable iteration in the series, it introduced a surprising number of advancements packed into a tiny cartridge: online play, additional characters to unlock, newly-remastered retro courses, and the new mission mode. It was a major step up from the Game Boy Advance's Mario Kart Super Circuit visually, as well, featuring fully 3D levels and characters.
But let's back up a minute. If you haven't been following, this is part five of a seven-part series leading up to Mario Kart 8 on May 30. In it, I'm revisiting each of the main Mario Kart games and sharing some memories, impressions and other fun content celebrating this unique and groundbreaking series. Catch up on the SNES' Super Mario Kart, the N64's Mario Kart 64, the GBA's Mario Kart Super Circuit, the GameCube's Mario Kart Double Dash!! and then head back here to keep reading!
When the Nintendo DS first released, it was a strange and confusing device. Nintendo, in a clear attempt to hedge their bets, positioned it as a "third pillar" device in addition to their GameCube home console and wildly-successful Game Boy Advance portable. Its unusual combination of two screens, touch interface (with included stylus), microphone, WiFi connectivity, and SNES-caliber set of controller inputs left many gamers scratching their heads.
I remember first playing the device at an EB Games store kiosk loaded with a demo of Metroid Prime: Hunters. It was the first time I had really enjoyed controlling a first-person shooter since the N64's GoldenEye: using the stylus to look offered a precise and easy-to-grasp way to move the camera, and I wanted the system right away. I would soon find out that many of my friends considered it to be too early to assess the system's eventual fate, but my intuition would prove to be correct with the DS eventually selling over 153 million units over the course of its life.
Sure, the DS wouldn't become a hotbed of FPS games the way I imagined (it turns out my opinions on the control scheme weren't echoed by many), but the system has one of the strongest libraries ever. In early 2005, though, pickings were slim until, in April of that year, the surprise hit Nintendogs put the console on the map in a major way. As the console was gaining steam, Nintendo wisely sensed that a Kart game could really propel its popularity to new heights.
In fact, Mario Kart DS released just one week shy of the DS' one-year anniversary on November 14, 2005 (the DS launched in North America on November 21, 2004). Its lifetime sales reached over 23 million units sold; it was a mega success by every stretch of the imagination.
But enough about the DS--let's get into the game!
Mario Kart DS really brought the series into what I would deem the "modern era" of Mario Kart--really, it invented it. One of the biggest ways that MKDS innovated was by reaching into the past, offering a suite of 16 additional courses culled from the previous four Kart titles, reimagined in the new engine. Although the GBA entry did allow for the SNES courses to be unlocked, they were basically the original courses verbatim.
Here, though, the SNES & GBA courses, previously only available in 2D, were brought kicking and screaming into the 3D world. Even the N64 courses got a few extra visual flourishes with the DS' hardware, but the GameCube tracks saw an obvious graphical reduction. The overall result, though, was a track list double the size of previous Kart games with Nintendo smartly reaching into nostalgia trick bag to give longtime fans of the series some major fan service.
The character roster, too, saw a bump, breaking free of the eight character limit that most previous entries imposed on players. In addition to the eight starting players (the same as Mario Kart 64's lineup), players could unlock Daisy, Dry Bones, Waluigi, and R.O.B. the Robot (in one of the early examples of Nintendo putting bits of the company's real-world history into its virtual worlds). Yes, Mario Kart Double Dash!! had more characters, but that was a necessity borne out of the two-character driving system, but MKDS represented a return to form with karts only holding a single character.
In a lot of ways, MKDS was a peace offering to many of the Kart purists who were caught off guard by the experimental GameCube game's cooperative driving system. The mechanics were rock solid, the karts had great customization options, the roster was expanded, and driving felt absolutely fantastic on Nintendo's third pillar portable.
Part of the brilliance of the game was that, as a handheld racer, it took advantage of the system's wireless capabilities in a number of unique ways to make on-the-go multiplayer easier than it had ever been. Players had the option of playing with other DS owners locally or over the new-for-the-time Nintendo WiFi online service. In a wonderful stealth marketing move, Nintendo made it possible for a local multiplayer match to be hosted by one person with a single copy of the game; of course, the options were limited and the other players could only play as Shy Guys (a sort of thirteenth character).
Regardless, this meant that you could you get a group of friends playing with a setup nearly as easy as flipping on your home console and passing out controllers; you just needed friends with their own DS system. Gone were the days of pricey Game Boy cables that no one had or would ever carry with them outside of the house; this felt like a legitimized solution for handheld multiplayer. With extra copies of the game, though, local multiplayer allowed for all the options you'd expect, but it also meant that you could take the game online across the world.
It was an exciting prospect at a time when Xbox Live was still a fledgling service and online gaming seemed more like the realm of the PC gamer. WiFi was still a newer technology for many homes, but Nintendo was smart enough to partner with lots of McDonald's and Starbucks location to offer WiFi hotspots that worked seamlessly with the DS' online infrastructure. I recall making trips to nearby locations just to try my hand at portable online gaming. It seemed too good to be true, but it actually worked as advertised. Getting WiFi at my apartment came shortly thereafter, and I couldn't wait to log on with my copy of MKDS.
Ultimately, though, the excitement of playing online would be ruined by the discovery of "snaking," a nearly game-breaking technique (in my opinion) that many online players quickly mastered. It involved power-sliding from side to side on the courses getting constant, tiny speed boosts that added up to a major advantage. For me, it took the fun out of racing, and it would be my first lesson in why online gaming was hardly a welcoming place.
Still, the game would remain an absolute staple in my DS' carrying case's collection of games that I never left at home. Whether waiting at the doctor office or the airport terminal, a few quick courses through a Grand Prix cup made for the perfect fifteen minute distraction. The 3D visuals made the experience feel like you had a true console experience that could fit in your pocket, and that felt like the real victory of MKDS.
Even into the lifespan of the Nintendo 3DS, I would continue to regularly bring this game with me on trips up until Mario Kart 7 eventually released (but I'll save that for a later post). Like so many of the Mario Kart games, MKDS helped define the system on which it appeared while paying homage in new and exciting ways to the games that had come before it. The game continued to sell so well into the system's life that Nintendo would even release a special Nintendo DSi XL bundle with MKDS in November 2010, five years after the game first launched.
Be sure to share your memories with this fantastic game in the comments section below and share the article on your social media channel of choice. Until next time, though, I think I'll hop back in the kart.